Saturday, May 15, 2010

Porchetta di Ariccia

Lovers of all things porcine: the June issue of La Cucina Italiana (the American version) is featuring an article that I wrote on "La Porchetta." If you've never had the pleasure of eating porchetta, you're missing out on one of Italy's great culinary treasures. Porchetta is ubiquitous street food, but it has a special place in Ariccia, the area southeast of Rome that's part of the Castelli Romani. The Ariccini are famous for this deboned, spit roasted pork that's seasoned with salt, garlic, rosemary and black pepper. It's typically eaten as a sandwich, but in Ariccia there are osterie, known as fraschette, that serve the revered pig with other Lazian specialties (and delicious local wines; particularly those that hail from Frascati). Want to learn more? The magazine will be in stores and at newsstands on May 18th. Check it out, and I'd love to know your thoughts.

A presto,

On a more cultural note (man cannot live on pork alone!), Ariccia is also famous for two edifices designed by the formidable 17th century sculptor/architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (i.e. the Palazzo Chigi, now a state-run art museum, and a centrally-planned church dedicated to the assumption of Mary). For great food, art and architecture Ariccia is definitely worth a visit (it's only an hour outside of Rome, and easily reachable by train or bus).

Sushi? Si!

Wanted in Rome:
Photo by Brette A. Jackson

"Fresco Painting in Italy"

Wanted in Rome:
Photo by Brette A. Jackson

"Our Daily Bread"

Wanted In Rome:
Photo by Brette A. Jackson

“The Bicycle Chief:” Collalti Bici: When in Rome bike as the Romans do

Photo by David T. Mayernik

I recently watched Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece,
Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves), and for those of you who’ve never seen it, it’s the tragic tale of a working-class man in financially depressed, post-World War II Rome who, along with his young son, spends most of the film combing the streets in search of his stolen bicycle, which he needs for his job. Without completely ruining the plot, the protagonist and his wife and children live in abject poverty, and the loss of the bicycle has placed the family on the brink of total destitution. I’ve seen this film several times, but now that I live in Rome it struck a new cord; it’s difficult to imagine a period in the city’s modern history when the automobile, moped or scooter were not the primary forms of transportation, and how something so simple and low-tech as a bicycle could make or break the lives of an average, urban family.

During the 1950’s Italy rebounded economically, which opened a space for a burgeoning middle-class who welcomed the comfort and prestige that came with owning a car, while the now healthier “proletariat” sector whole-heartily adopted the affordable moped and scooter. Over the years both forms of transportation grew exponentially, and by the millennium the bicycle was all but extinct. But progress is often accompanied with sacrifice, and Rome (like other European cities) was forced to acknowledge that there was nothing “dolce” about a life plagued with gridlock traffic and elevated levels of air pollution that threatened the health of its citizenry, and had the potential to cause irreparable damage to many of the city’s soot encrusted monuments. In 2005, Rome’s then Mayor Walter Veltroni set into action a dramatic plan to reduce traffic and pollution. For instance, each month driving was prohibited in the historical center on three different Sundays, car and motorini use were limited one day weekly, and each Thursday automobiles with odd and even numbered license plates alternated the use of major thoroughfares. Some deemed the course of action punitive. However, many agreed that things had gone too far, and learned to live with the restrictions by utilizing a simple and environmentally friendly means of transport: the bicycle. In June of 2008, local government collaborated with the Spanish company Cemusa in a program designed to allow residents to use bicycles (set up in major piazzas), as an alternative means of getting around Rome’s center. Cemusa and the city are currently working out the logistics for long-term service of the program, and advertising. Still, in spite of the tension that has ensued (Cemusa has twice threatened to pull the plug), the program has been hailed a huge success—and has been the catalyst for privately owned bicycle rental shops that have mushroomed across the city and spurred some tourist agencies to offer “See Rome by bicycle” tour packages.

Having recently returned to Rome, I was astounded by the number of bicyclist negotiating a path through crowded piazzas, and taking on cars and motorists in zones where there is still relatively high traffic—riding a bicycle in Rome is definitely not for the faint of heart! I was also struck by the elegance of many of these bicycles, particularly those with the trade name Collalti that seemed to be everywhere. I spied several with mod brushed aluminum, pastel colored or sleek black frames; some were fitted with leather seats, handle bar grips and saddlebags—leave it to the Italians to make something as perfunctory as a bicycle chic! Out of curiosity, I visited this little shop located in the heart of the city, and learned that the Collalti family have been making bicycles since 1899. Depending on how much you want to spend the current capo Danilo Collalti will set you up with a “bespoke” bicycle that could grace a catwalk in Milan; but there are many affordable, and more austere, models from which to choose—prices range from as little as 200 to 1,500 euros for a touring, city, mountain or hybrid bicycle. I decided to join the ranks of the intrepid urban biker, and with Danilo’s assistance I settled on a shiny, black cruiser that sold for 200 euros. We decided to increase the number of gears, and he agreed to attach a basket and a bell (and buying a good lock in critical!); the total package came to 280 euros—less than I spent, without the accoutrements, for a similar style, off-the-line bicycle that I own in the States. The bicycle was ready in less than a week, and upon retrieving it my uncontrollable excitement had Danilo—who on first impression appeared stern and businesslike—smiling from ear to ear, and I caught a twinkle in his eye that you only find in people who truly love and take pride in what they do. Some Romans have commented that the recent popularity of the bicycle is merely a trend. When I mentioned this to Danilo he disagreed, and expressed that Romans are fascinated by novelty and quick to try new things. “But the bicycle isn’t really ‘new’ and in essence it allows people to better appreciate the city.” "On Sundays, for instance, you can find families biking in parks, and in areas once dominated by motorized traffic; it’s a new way to enjoy la passeggiata."

Even as the country seems to be teetering on the edge of economic crisis, his bicycle sales have remained steady—and 2008 was a record year when he sold over 800 bicycles (that may seem like a small figure, but remember this is Italy, where family owned businesses are only opened five days a week, are closed for most major holidays and shutdown for up to two weeks in the summer). The reality is, automotive transportation isn’t going away. But as in De Sica’s era, the bicycle has proven to be a necessary and even vital means of transit.

Collalti Bici
Via del Pellegrino, 82
39 06 68801084
They also sell bicycle paraphernalia and offer bicycle repairs

Death, Birth and Beef Stew

In Memory of Emma C. Mayernik
May 28, 1925 - December 18, 2009

We stood by her bedside and watched her dying; slowly and seemingly painlessly thanks to medical technology and pharmaceutics. She is my husband’s mother, Emma Mayernik. She’d been complaining about stomach pains recently, but she ignored her daughter’s urging to go to the hospital, perhaps thinking it wasn’t anything severe, or more likely she was afraid. When she finally yielded and went in for tests, it turned out she had a bleeding ulcer, which then erupted and the trauma sent her heart into arrest. She had open-heart surgery, and was put on life support. The bleeding continued and couldn’t be stopped. Years ago she had a living will drawn up, and in it she was categorical: If in the event that she ever ended up in such a predicament, life support should be ceased. So just like that, within forty-eight hours, she was here and then gone. My husband and I had just gotten off a plane in O’Hare airport, and were about to make the journey to our apartment in South Bend, Indiana. We planned to spend a few days there before heading off to disparate parts of the country to share Christmas with our families. His father died in October, so he decided to spend the time with his mother, sister and nephews in Pennsylvania, and I would go to California to celebrate with my mom. We are gypsies, and separate holidays have become part of our tribal rite. But this year an untimely death changed all that, forcing us to realize that we actually don’t have as much control over our lives as our “vagabond” hearts would like us to believe. We were making our way to pick up a rental car when my husband’s sister called and urged us to come to Allentown immediately, or we might not have a chance to say goodbye.

And now we’re all in the process of dealing with her death, which at first entails mostly perfunctory tasks: making arrangements with the funeral parlor, the church, packing up her clothes, going over her will, etc. She wasn’t my mother, so I’m spared the anguish of that loss. Instead, I’m doing what I do best in crisis situations: making sure that everyone eats, and that they eat well. It’s freezing outside. I was born not far from this part of the state, and I’m reminded of the raw, frigid winters of my past. I was a February baby and I have a deep-seeded love of cold weather, but I’m suddenly feeling the need for warmth, and I’m inspired to prepare the following dish:

Brette’s Frigid Weather Beef Stew
Serves 6 (with leftovers)

3 lbs of chuck roast
2 small cleaned fennel bulbs
1 large yellow Spanish onion
1 head of garlic
3 carrots peeled
extra-virgin olive oil
two heaping tablespoons of tomato paste
orange peel
bay leaf
fresh thyme
three cups of strong beef stock
half bottle of hearty red wine (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, etc.)
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the roast into two inch sized cubes (you can buy this cut of meat already cut into stew sized pieces, but it cost less, and it’s more gratifying, to cut it up yourself) and put aside. Cut the fennel bulb in half, and make medium-thin slices across the length. Cut the onion in half and cut off both the root and bloom ends. Slice it in the same manner as the fennel. Cut the carrots on the bias, so that you have long, beveled slices. Separate the garlic cloves and peel each leaving them whole. Heat a heavy, cast iron Dutch oven over medium high heat until hot, and add two tablespoons of the olive oil; sauté the beef in batches until it’s well browned (adding more oil if needed with each batch). Reserve the browned meat on a platter. Add more oil and sweat the aromatic vegetables (onion, fennel, carrots and garlic cloves). Add the tomato paste and stir until blended. Add the bay leaf, orange peel and the browned meat, and increase the heat to high. Add the wine, stock and salt and pepper to taste; cover until it reaches a boil and turn it down to a simmer. Cook for two hours. When the stew is finished, adjust salt and pepper and add fresh thyme leaves. Serve with roasted or mashed potatoes.

For a while we keep our spirits lifted with cheerful conversation, and in each others' eyes we find hope. An anonymous man in navy scrubs enters the room and informs us that we have to leave; he needs to perform some superfluous procedure, and our vigil is broken. Before we gather our coats, hats and scarves a tiny, bell-like piece of music can be heard chiming from the loudspeakers. It’s Shubert’s Lullaby, and its incongruous sweetness makes it all the more surreal that I’m bundling up in a room of an intensive care unit. “That piece of music is played throughout the hospital whenever a baby is born,” my sister-in-law informs me. Then we’re heading for the elevators, and I'm comforted by the image of myself at the stove preparing a hearty stew for her children, family and friends on a snowy December afternoon. Somewhere in this vast building people will soon gather together. They’ll encircle a man and a woman and they’ll smile, marveling at both the fragility and power of a swaddled newborn.

Grotto Morchino

Grazie Mille, Michele & Gianna Kestenholtz!

It’s a busy Saturday night at Grotto Morchino, located in the sylvan hills of Pazzallo in Ticino, Switzerland’s southernmost canton that borders Italy (Italian is the official language), and owner Pierluigi Olgiati is making the rounds, exchanging greetings, shaking hands and sometimes taking orders. A group of boisterous women get his attention; on a long table set before them flowers and gifts have been spread out in celebration of someone’s birthday. Pierluigi, who just happens to resemble George Clooney, proceeds to join them and a round of successive kisses on their cheeks ensue (that’s three kisses each in Switzerland). Plates of assorted salamis and cheeses arrive, and the gregarious restaurateur offers them a buon appetito before moving on to another table. Olgiati was practically reared in this forty-seat (plus forty-five seats outside, used during the summer months) grotto that’s been run by his family for decades (a grotto is a small, typically rustic eatery with outdoor, communal seating that serves artisan-produced cured meats, cheeses and classic Ticinese dishes). Initially Olgiati had no desire to take over the family business, and instead ended up working in marketing. When his mother died in 1980 he inherited the restaurant, but held onto his day job treating the business like a hobby, which he rented out for private parties and used for dinners with family and friends. In 2000 fate intervened. During a torrential rainstorm a tree was severed by lightening and crashed through the roof causing serious damage. The restoration required a good deal of money and sweat equity, but in the process he transformed the humble grotto of his childhood into an elegant dinning room with a wood-beam ceiling (hidden for decades by a suspended ceiling), a large fireplace, sunny yellow walls, walnut tables and soft lighting. He saw the potential to once again use the space as a public restaurant, where he’d serve classic grotti dishes, but in a more upscale setting. He quit his job, and has been running this successful venture ever since.

I joined two friends who live in the area for dinner there in October, and the usual menu had been augmented with la selvaggina, wild game that’s prized during the fall months (Pierluigi makes it a point to showcase monthly, seasonal delicacies such as wild asparagus in April, porcini mushrooms in September, etc.). The evening commenced with the quintessential grotto antipasto, affettati misti and formaggi (slices of excellent, local cured meats, made mostly from pork, and fresh cow and goat’s milk cheeses). The meat portion consisted of prosciutto, lardo (thin slices of salt-cured pig fat that’s seasoned with herbs and spices) and one of my favorites, mortadella (not the soft, larded version made in Bologna, but a crumbly sausage-like variety that includes the pig’s liver). To this we added a plate of salametti di cervo e cinghiale from the game menu (thin, crimson-colored, fresh salami made from deer and wild boar, respectively). Cured meats are always accompanied with pickled onions and gherkins, and the sour, crunchy vegetables provided the perfect contrast to the savory affettati. A plate of cheeses followed: a fresh, tart little round variety made from a mix of cow and goat’s milk called formaggino (that you eat with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, salt and coarse black-pepper corns that are soaked in grappa) and formaggio delle Alpi (a firm, buttery cow’s milk cheese similar to raclette).

A classic first course is busecca, hearty minestrone with the addition of tripe that is right out of the canons of Ticinese “peasant food.” A few dishes from neighboring Lombardy have worked their way into the area’s diet. Various types of risotto, for instance, are offered and one that’s prepared with grappa and luganighetta (mild pork sausage that’s also served grilled) reveals the culinary symbiosis of the Southern Swiss and Northern Italians. No grotto meal would be complete, especially during the colder months, without Ticinese polenta, which is a combination of cornmeal and buckwheat that’s slow cooked in a paiolo di rame, a timbale shaped pan made from hand hammered copper (also a shared Italian staple that you find in Lombardy’s Valtellina). The polenta is served with a choice of braised meats, cheese, egg, or milk (the latter two hark back to the days when animal “by-products,” not the animals themselves, were the primary foods of this once indigent community). We ordered polenta with a typical autumnal dish featured on the game menu, salmi di camoscio (a dark, wine based stew of wild Alpine goat), which turned out to be a bit chewy, but very flavorful none the less—I can’t imagine how you could tenderize any animal that can scale the Alps with ease. Sticking with the game theme, we then shared a plate of sautéed pheasant breast that was accompanied by a salad of bitter greens. Finally we punctuated the meal with another specialty of the area, grilled filetto di puledro (horse, which was an essential part of survival in this mountainous area, since they provided transportation, aided in farming and were often the only source of animal protein). Puledro is always served rare, and the flavor is rich and oddly “beefy.”

Ticino’s premier grape varietal is Merlot (with Barbera coming in second). Swiss Merlots were once met with disdain, since they tended to be bland and syrupy, but due to recent improvements in vinification the Ticinese are producing Merlots of distinction. Pierluigi also likes to feature a regional wine monthly, so we ordered the October selection, Terra Matta Merlot 2007 that hails from nearby Locarno (on the northern tip of Lago Maggiore: that's a big, round wine with current and blackberry notes; exactly what you want when you’re eating full flavored salamis, cheeses and game.

Desserts are simple, homey and delicious. Two standouts are the rotolo di castagne (a rich chestnut flour cake made with coco powder and ground almonds that’s served warm with a dollop of whipped cream) and a flaky, cinnamon-kissed apple tart. We didn’t think we could eat another bite, but we managed to finish both—and emit a purr or two in the process.

Eating at a grotto is taking part in an age-old tradition where family and friends come together to share and extol the simple, often crafted, foods that are a part of this canton’s culinary heritage. Pierluigi Olgiati has made it his mission to keep this custom alive and with style, commitment, great food and joviality he’s managed to do just that.

Grotto Morchino

Via Carona, 1

CH 6912 Pazzallo, Switzerland

(Canton Ticino )

Tel. +41 (0) 91 994 6044

Open May – December (outdoor seating June-August)

Tuesday – Sunday (Saturday dinner only)

Lunch 10:00 – 2:00

Dinner 6:00 – 10:45

Credit Cards: Visa, Master Card, American Express, Diners’ Club

To Market: South Bend Farmer’s Market

Having been reared in urban Philadelphia, and later moving to New York where I attended university and later culinary school (I subsequently “cut my teeth” as a professional cook, recipe tester and food-stylist assistant in Manhattan), life in Italy has provided me with my first, true agricultural experiences. I worked at a friend’s estate outside of Siena, where along with his family and several cronies we bottled the wine produced from grapes that grow on a property that's belonged to his family for centuries. I worked in a small restaurant in Modena for a bit, and met a man who makes some of the area’s best balsamic vinegar. I visited the vineyard where he grows the trebbiano grapes used to make his magical elixir, and tasted my first grape fresh off the vine. I’ve
picked tiny, wild strawberries, plucked caper buds from ancient walls, encountered a wild boar and walked among olive groves. I lived in Florence for three years, and discovered the beauty of the Sant’ Ambrogio farmer’s market; frequent excursions there helped me understand the interconnection between “town and country.” Seeing fruits, vegetables and meats in their raw state gave me a new respect for food and the people who produce it. The market also allowed me to participate in the bounty that each season provides. To anticipate the arrival of porcini mushrooms in the fall, savory fava beans in the spring, bitter greens in the winter, and luscious figs in the summer heightened my new-found connection with nature. Now wherever I go, a trip to the farmer’s market is high on my list of priorities.

I live in South Bend, IN part of the year, since my husband teaches in the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame (he’s currently teaching with their program in Rome, which we essentially call home). When I’m there, particularly during the summer, I make a beeline to the bustling local farmer’s market, where I always find some of the best local, seasonal (and often organic) meats, fresh fish (not local, but of excellent quality), cheeses, etc., in the state.

The South Bend Farmer’s Market was established in 1911 as an outdoor venue where local farmers, gardeners, home cooks and businessmen could sell their products to the public. This was the same year the Studebaker Corporation was founded, and their successful car and wagon manufacturing business transformed the town into a vital metropolis that attracted hundreds of laborers (mostly German, Polish and Irish immigrants) looking for solid employment opportunities. As the town grew exponentially the market continued to thrive, so much so that it was moved to various larger locations to accommodate the throngs of shoppers and vendors that made this one of the biggest and active markets in the county. In 1972 the market was relocated to its current cavernous, barn-like space that houses over 100 vendors, and a cafe was added that transforms some of the market’s products into hearty fare such as biscuits and gravy (a mid-west delicacy!), meat-loaf, fried chicken, potpies and burgers (and for those who view “meat as murder” there’s vegetarian chow as well), various cakes and seasonal pies. If you prefer to eat while you shop, you can nosh on a warm pretzel from the Amish bakery, grab a fresh tamale from the Mexican food stand, a spring roll from the Thai food stand or a panino from the Italian deli. In a sense, a local Farmers market is a self-sufficient town that reflects both the traditional and the diverse nature of its community. And more, it gives us the opportunity to nourish our bodies with wholesome, delicious foods that are the results of nature and human hands.

Bicolor Cherry Tomato Bruschetta

Serves 4

Everybody loves bruschetta. In Italy this humble dish is the hallmark of cucina povera (peasant food). The origins of this tasty snack hails from Tuscany. During la raccolta (the olive harvest that takes place throughout October), olive farmers prepare grilled bread that they use to sample the flavor of their oil. Bruschetta is derived from the verb bruciare, to burn, which refers to the method of toasting the bread over a hot charcoal grill. Once you toast your bread, any number of toppings can be added such as white beans, sautéed greens, prosciutto and the classic tomato and fresh basil. Since it’s August, and the market was literally bursting with a kaleidoscopic color of cherry tomatoes, I decided to make a mix consisting of orange and red varieties and lots of garlic.

2 pints of clean cherry tomatoes of diverse colors (or go nuts and use three or more) 1 round loaf of crusty Italian bread 3/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil 3 cloves of garlic coarse sea salt freshly ground black pepper

Cut tomatoes in half and add to a mixing bowl. Using a knife, or a garlic press, mash garlic into a semi-smooth past (it’s OK to have a bit of texture). Add to tomatoes and pour on the oil . Add salt and pepper to taste, and mix thoroughly. Let the tomato, garlic mixture rest so that the flavors marry. Heat an outdoor grill, or indoor cast iron grill pan, until searing hot. Slice the bread in half, and then make even thin slices out of each half (not too thin; about less than an inch). Place the slices on the grill and cook until they are nicely toasted on each side. When all the slices are ready, arrange them on a platter and top with the tomato, garlic and olive oil mixture. Note: I like to sprinkle on an additional amount of coarse sea salt—I like that crunchy burst of salt you get with each bite! I typically forgo the use of basil, or other herbs such as parsley, since I think they overpower the sweet, pure flavor of the tomato, but feel free to use either if you like. Buon appetito!

Catania Fish Market: Sea Urchins and Goddesses

Photo Tom Pfeiffer

Sicily is a magical place that holds many culinary treasures—the fish, the lamb, the vegetables, the wine, the desserts: ahhhhhh! One such treasure is the fish market in the coastal city Catania, located on the eastern area of the island, just at the foot of the volatile volcano Mount Etna. Catania is Sicily’s second largest city and it has the feel, over all, of a weathered seaport town, lacking the charm of Cefalù, or the sophistication of Palermo. But what you do find here is one of the best outdoor fish markets in Italythe fish is so fresh that the sweet sea air cheats you of its scent. There's a staggering variety of both fin and shellfish; some are sold straight from the neighboring Ionian sea and are still alive—have you ever seen a squid wink at you before?!?! This is also a wonderful place to take in a seafood repast, and most of the restaurants in the city offer excellent aquatic dishes that are pure and simple, maintaining the integrity and freshness of the fish. Close to the market there are a few little buchi (hole in the wall eateries) that serve some of the freshest fish I've ever eaten. I was there in the early part of the spring two years ago, and my favorite marine treat was everywhere: riccio di mare (sea urchin). The dish that makes me look back and salivate the most was a bowl of steaming spaghetti served with the classic Sicilian trinity: olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. The woman who served us the pasta took out an odd tool that resembled a nutcracker-cum-bottle-top opener, and with it she cracked open the spiny beasts in half, scooped out their content's into the bowl of heady pasta, tossed it all together and served it onto our awaiting plates. Incredibile!

The combination of steady sunlight and rich, volcanic soil has also made this part of the island a good source of fruity and herbaceous white wines that are the perfect accompaniment to this largely fish based cuisine. According to mythology the goddess Persephone, one of the daughters' of Zeus, enters into a marriage contract with the god of the underworld, Hades, via an area of the Sicilian landscape. Her fate is not so grave, however, as she returns to the Island every spring, and with her return she brings renewal and the promise of life. I hope she makes a pit-stop to the Catania fish market and indulges in a resplendent fish banquet. I imagine her enjoying a plate of spaghetti ai ricchi di mare and feeling less like a victim, and more like a goddess.

Turkish Delight: The Confection of the Sultans

Istanbul is a city that never fails to enchant: Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the ethereally beautiful Topkapı Palace, the majestic Bosporus; all of these elements of the city, and many more, truly take my breath away. Fantastic savory dishes and sweets can be found everywhere, and one of my all time favorites is the habit-forming candy “Turkish Delight.” This heavenly confection traces its origins to Anatolia around the 14th or 15th century. The fragrant, gelatinous candy was originally prepared with either honey, or a syrup derived from reduced grape must called pekmez, which was then thickened with flour. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire took control of Egypt, and sugar produced from Egyptian sugar cane became the primary sweetening agent, transforming the once humble candy into a rich, chewy treat prepared for the sultans. The Ottomans called the confection Rahatü’l hulkum—which translates loosely as “that which soothes the throat.” The name was eventually shortened to the Turkish word lokum, which is still used today. The sugar was boiled down with a small amount of water until it became an amber-colored syrup that was then thickened. The caramelized sugar gave the candy a soft, toasty flavor (this simple lokum, called sade, is still made today). Later, however, exotic ingredients such as an essence made from fragrant rose petals were added (this type of lokum called Güllü, remains a popular flavor, and is my absolute favorite!)
In the 19th century, lokum began to be sold to the public in small shops and in the markets, and when cornstarch replaced the use of flour, the texture was perfected and the creamy, silky consistency that resulted made the sweet even more popular—as did the addition of other flavoring elements such as pistachios, citrus fruits, mint and vanilla. According to popular legend, a British tourist traveling in Istanbul at this time purchased a case of lokum, which he took back with him to London. The exported sweet was an instant hit with candy-loving Victorians, and when asked what the delicious candy was called, he gave it its current sobriquet, “Turkish Delight.”
Two of the major companies that produce lokum in Istanbul are Haci Bekir and Hazer Baba. The former is named for Turkey’s most famous confectioner, Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir, who was the personal lokumi to the sultan in the latter part of the 18th century (he is also credited for being the first to substitute cornstarch for flour, thus bringing the sweet to it apogee). Five generations later, his family continues to make Turkey’s finest lokum, and other traditional types of Turkish sweets, that they sell in their elegant shops. The Hazer Baba Company produces lokum, and other types of candy and spices, that they sell in the famous Egyptian Market. Less boutique oriented than the Haci Bekir shop, Hazer Baba sells a dizzying array of flavors such as: apricot and honey; ginger, violet, peach, melon, amaretto, coriander, and a variety of chocolate-coated flavors—along with the more traditional rose and pistachio. Both companies export their products outside of Turkey, but Hazer Baba has a significantly larger international distribution.
If you’ve never tried this luscious sweet, you're in for a real surprise. It’s soft, silky and rich, but it's not cloyingly sweet. It’s one of those foods that virtually transporting, sending you off in a reverie of sultans, opulent palaces, imposing mosques and minarets that puncture the clouds, while the sun slowly descends behind the Golden Horn....

Moules Provençale My Sunny Valentine

Recipe by Brette A. Jackson
Photo By David T. Mayernik

I developed this Provençal inspired recipe as an antidote to the winter blues. Its cheerful color and bright, aromatic flavors are evocative of both summer and the sea. As shellfish are considered to be an aphrodisiac, this dish would make a lovely and romantic Valentine’s Day dinner. Serve with a simple green salad, warm crusty French bread and a cool fruity rosé.

Serves 2
2 to 2 1/2 lbs of mussels cleaned and de-bearded 1 medium fennel bulb sliced paper-thin 2 medium leeks (white parts only) cut into thin half-moon slices 2 garlic cloves cut into paper-thin slices 1 cup of fruity white wine (such as sauvignon blanc) 2 tablespoons of Pernod (or 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds) 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (plus 2 tablespoons for mounting into the sauce at the end) 3 whole canned San Marzano tomatoes chopped 1 large pinch of saffron threads (about a half teaspoon) 1 bay leaf Chopped Italian parsley and fennel fronds for garnish Sea salt & fresh black pepper to taste Place a large Dutch-oven over a low flame and add the two tablespoons of extra-virgin oil. Add the fennel, leeks and garlic slices; cover and sweat until translucent. Add the bay leaf and saffron and cook until fragrant (about 2 minutes or so). Increase the heat and add the Pernod (or fennel seeds) and the wine and boil until reduced by half. Reduce the heat and add the tomatoes; cover and cook for about ten minutes. Increase the heat again and add the cleaned and de-bearded mussels and cover. When most of the mussels have opened, add freshly ground pepper and stir gently; lower the flame to medium and cook, covered, for about three minutes (never overcook mussels as they become tough and rubbery). Turn off the heat and with a slotted spoon scoop out the mussels and add them to a warm, deep bowl (see note). Taste the sauce and add salt, if needed, and fresh pepper to taste; stir the remaining extra-virgin olive oil into sauce and pour over the mussels. Garnish with the chopped parsley and fennel fronds. Bon appetit!

Note: If the mussels have given off a lot of liquid and the sauce appears to be too thin, cover the mussels loosely with aluminum foil to keep them warm. Return the sauce to a high flame and reduce to desired thickness. Turn off the flame and add salt, if needed, and fresh pepper to taste; stir in the extra-virgin olive oil and pour over the mussels. Garnish with the chopped parsley and fennel fronds.

Caffè Sant’ Eustachio: Saints and Secrets

Romans are as fussy about their coffee as they are about their pasta. A debate about where one finds the best coffee in the Eternal City could go on for, well, an eternity. However, it’s fair to say that many discerning Romani would agree that excellent coffee can be found at Caffè Sant’ Eustachio, a small coffee-bar tucked into the lovely eponymous piazza famous for the church of Sant’Eustachio—recognizable by a large sculpture of a stag’s head that crowns the roof of the church, commemorating the 2nd century martyr who converted to Christianity when he saw a vision of Christ between the antlers of a deer he was hunting near Tivoli. The constant crowds of Romans spilling into the street, sipping caffè from tiny porcelain cups, lets you know that this piazza houses more than one great monument. Sant’ Eustachio is no secret; it’s a Roman institution, and that’s part of its appeal. Unlike other such establishments that rest on antiquated laurels, here you'll find one of the most consistently delicious and unusual espressos in Rome.

Founded in 1938, Caffè Sant’ Eustachio is currently owned by the Ricci family, who are intent on preserving the quality of the 4,000 cups of coffee sold there daily. Their espresso is like no other you'll find in the city. An amber-colored froth (schiuma) cloaks a viscous dark liquid that has a scent reminiscent of caramel—with a hint of some exotic spice (perhaps cardamom?). The taste is rich, luscious and buttery. It’s served sweetened, but purist can request to have it senza zucchero—true espresso aficionados claim that sugar masks coffee’s natural, aromatic quality. You could spend hours trying to figure out what is it that makes this espresso so extraordinary. But, alas you’ll never really know, since the recipe is a closely guarded secret.

I’ve tried on many occasions to pry the formula out of the caffè's baristi, who with their usual severity and professionalism answer dryly “è una segreta,” and don’t bother trying to steal a peek once they’re off performing their magic, since the espresso machines are fitted with stainless-steel shields that completely conceal both the mixture and method in which your caffè is made. On one of my daily excursions there (post caffè satiation), I struck up a conversation with the cafe’s manager Raimondo Ricci, whose close cropped beard gives him a professorial air. Raimondo is often found roosted behind the register where you order your piccolo or grande caffè speciale, and cappuccino (or purchase their roasted coffee beans in bags of 1000, 500, 300, and 200 grams). It was unusually quiet, so I struck up the courage to ask him how he managed to serve one of the best espressos in Rome? He smiled, amused by my enthusiasm, and asked if I was American. I gave an affirmative nod and he called to another cashier, positioned him behind the register as if to watch for invading vandals at the city’s gate, and gestured me to follow him. We walked to the back of the cafe brushing past black and white photos of Henry Kissinger, Boris Yeltsin and other great political giants (being humbled by diminutive cups of espresso) to a room perfumed with the scent of toasted wood and coffee. There a large, ominous machine stands next to piles of burlap sacks of silvery-green, raw coffee beans and a basket filled with kindling. Raimondo began to explain that this machine was used to roast their coffee beans and was modeled after the original coffee bean roasters used during the drink's widespread popularity in Italy at the turn of the century. Oak wood is used to gently roast, every three days, 300 kilos (about 661 lbs.) of 100% Arabica beans (the “champagne” of coffee beans) from Kenya, Costa Rica, Brazil and Columbia, for exactly 20 minutes. The mixture of the beans and the slow, gradual roasting produces a deep, complexly flavored coffee, and the oak adds a slightly sweet, smoky note as well. The beans are then very finely ground, so that the steaming they receive during the espresso making process produces a condensed, viscous liquid.

The espresso machines also play an important role in the flavor of the coffee. The machines remain turned on at all times during the six days of operation. Raimondo explained that allowing the machines to run constantly, maintains the exact temperature of the water used for steaming the ground beans, and makes for a consistently tempered and clean-flavored espresso. Further, as a result of their constant use, and meticulous cleaning, the machines don’t have a chance to build up residual oils and impurities that are extracted from the coffee grounds—the espresso machines at Sant’ Eustachio are subjected to such abuse that they must be replaced every two years.

Satisfied that he had given me sufficient information regarding the high quality of his coffee, I was led back to the front of the bar. A few questions had been answered: the types of beans used, the method in which they are roasted, even the manner in which the machines are maintained and how the coffee beans are steamed. Yet one question remained unanswered: out of the aggregate, how do they achieve that frothy, rich and spicy espresso? Raimondo, who must have read my mind, anticipated what was coming next and dismissively shook my hand. I took the hint, thanked him and left. Heading back to my apartment, I was amused by the fact that like his coffee Raimondo’s informative tour left me gratified, yet greedy for a little more....

Information on the History of Sant' Eustachio:

Georgina Masson, "The Companion Guide to Rome"

Cantinetta Antinori

Located in a 15th century palazzo just off of the fashionable via dei Tornabuoni (Florence’s mini “Fifth Avenue”), Cantinetta Antinori is the ideal place to slake the appetite you’ve built up after a morning of power shopping. No one mixes elegance and rusticity like the Florentines, and Cantinetta Antinori perfectly exemplifies both with its white stucco vaulted ceiling, Renaissance-inspired tables and chairs and antique prints and majolica. Both the à la carte and daily specials offer seasonal, classic Tuscan fare such as a delicious antipasto of grilled porcini mushrooms and artichokes topped with a veil of fruity, jade-green Laudemeo extra-virgin olive oil (from the Antinori Chianti Classico estate), minestra di farro (a hearty soup of fresh borlotto beans, sausage and spelt) and trippa alla fiorentina (tripe braised in a sweet tomato sauce), all presented by camerieri in impeccable white jackets, who are professional, but maintain a relaxed air. There are both ground floor and mezzanine dinning rooms, or you can sit at the beautiful antique walnut bar and enjoy a glass of wine, served by the enoteca’s movie-star-handsome sommelier.

I arrived for lunch at 1:00, and by the time I began to delve into my chosen antipasto flan di cavolo nero con salsa di cannellini e tartufi (a timbale of pureed Tuscan black cabbage and fresh ricotta cheese, cloaked with steamed black cabbage leaves, and topped with a fresh cannellini bean and white truffle sauce), both dining rooms and the bar were packed with an interesting mix of locals: a stylish “thirty something” group dressed in black, middle-aged women adorned with large pieces of expensive jewelry (replete with fur coats draped over their shoulders!) and well dressed business men, taking full advantage of their expense accounts. The Antinori have been vintners since the 14th century, and today they produce some of Italy’s finest wines. Understandably, only selections from various private estates are offered on the wine list, so you can sample either bottles or glasses of some of their most notable vintages. I tasted glasses of both the Villa Antinori Chianti Classico ‘96, which was young, fresh and redolent of plums, and an inky-colored, spicy Tignanello’96 that was rounder and more refined, with a velvity texture and ripe current flavor that is tinged with a hint of vanilla (indicating its brief repose in oak barrels). There is a small but excellent selection of Tuscan and local cheeses, and desserts are simple and homey. The castagnaccio (Tuscan chestnut flour, pine nuts and raisin cake with fresh rosemary) is served warm, and is a satisfying end to this upscale country cooking.

Cantinetta Antinori

Piazza Antinori, 3 Florence (They now have a winebars in Zurich, Moscow and Vienna)
À la Carte menu with daily specials
Open 12:30-2:30-7:00-10:30
Tel. 055 292234 – 055 2359827
Closed Saturday and Sunday

All major credit cards accepted Reservations not necessary, but suggested

Bottarga di Muggine

No other food is more emblematic of Sardinia than bottarga di muggine, the cured roe of grey mullets that thrive in this island’s lagoons. The primary zones of production are the gulfs of Cagliari, the island’s capitol, and Oristano, located near Cabras, the city reputed to produce Sardinia’s finest bottarga. The method of preservation is centuries old, and though its name derives from the Arabic word batârikh, which translates loosely to “dried,” bottarga’s history dates back even farther. Egyptian murals dating from the 10th century BC depict fisherman executing the lengthy process in which bottarghe were, and still are made. The mullet’s egg sacs are carefully removed and salted for up to one week to promote dehydration. They are then washed and sandwiched between weighted, wooden boards to press out any residual liquid, and to give them a solid, flat shape. Finally, they are hung and allowed to air dry until they take on their characteristic coral color. They are then packaged in hermetically sealed plastic bags (originally, they were encased in beeswax). The technique, also used by fisherman at the port of Alexandria, spread throughout the Mediterranean to countries such as Italy, France, Turkey, Greece and North Africa—today bottarga is also produced in Japan, Australia and Israel. Like so many wonderful foods created not for luxury, but to inhibit spoilage (before the invention of the refrigerator), bottarga is considered a delicacy, and is often referred to as “Sardinian caviar,” and like caviar bottarga carries a lofty price tag, costing about $10.00 an ounce.

Roberto Portoghese, a third generation bottarga maker, produces some of Cagliari’s best bottarga and exports his “Sardinian caviar” worldwide. On a recent visit to his azienda (the site where the bottarghe are produced), he explained that current laws regarding strict sanitation practices have changed the conditions where bottarghe are made. He now uses special equipment designed to control temperature and humidity levels that curtail bacteria. He proudly assured me, however, that all of the preparation is still carefully done by hand, as its been done for hundreds of years.

Visually, bottarga can leave you daunted—it resembles an orange-colored amoeba. But its taste is a wonderful evocation of sea and land, being both delicately briny and nutty in flavor, with a slightly pleasant bitter finish. Sardinians eat bottarga thinly sliced on top of raw vegetables such as celery or artichoke hearts simply dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon (I also love to pair it with fennel). Or more commonly, grated and tossed onto malloreddus, a small quill-shaped pasta with ridges, served with a simple sauce of garlic infused olive oil; allowing the complex flavors of this ancient food to shine through.

Malloreddus alla Bottarga

Serves 4

Malloreddus is the classic Sardinian pasta also known as gnocchetti Sardi. If you have trouble finding them, this dish can also be made penne, or with spaghetti. Bottarga should be taken out of its vacuum sealed package at least an hour before it’s eaten (the airtight container dulls its flavor). Left over pieces should be wrapped well in plastic wrap, and kept in the refrigerator. It will keep for months, but its flavor may change if it becomes too dry. Pre-grated bottarga sold in jars is a mediocre substitute to the whole roe; it’s typically either flat or assertively fishy in flavor.

4 lb. of malloreddus (or spaghetti)

2 ounces of mullet bottarga

8 tbsp. of mildly flavored extra-virgin olive oil (such as an oil from Sardinia, Liguria or Apulia)

2 garlic cloves peeled and gently crushed

1/8 tsp. of chilli pepper flakes (optional)

1/2 cup of boiling water taken from the pasta as it cooks

Using a paring knife, carefully remove the paper-like skin from the bottarga. Using a fine grater, grate the bottarga into a bowl and set aside. In a small saucepan add the olive oil and crushed garlic cloves. Cook the garlic over a low flame until they turn golden in color. Turn of the flame and remove the garlic from the pan (add the chilli pepper if choose to use it). Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil and cook pasta according to directions. When nearly done take one-half cup of the pasta water from the pot and reserve (which will give a creamy texture to the finished dish). When the pasta is done, turn off the flame, drain and return to the pot. Add warm oil, the 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water and the bottarga; stir well and serve.